IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Report: Students don't know much about US history

A national assessment finds that less than a quarter of students are proficient in U.S. history.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. students don't know much about American history, according to results of a national test released Tuesday.

Just 13 percent of high school seniors who took the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress — called the Nation's Report Card — showed solid academic performance in American history. The two other grade levels tested didn't perform much better, which just 22 percent of fourth-grade students and 18 percent of eighth-graders scoring proficient or better.

The test quizzed students on such topics as colonization, the American Revolution, the Civil War and the contemporary United States. For example, one question asks fourth-graders why it was important for the United States to build canals in the 1800s.

"The history scores released today show that student performance is still too low," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a prepared statement. "These results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education."

Education experts say a heavy focus on reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind law in the last decade has led to lagging performance in other subjects such as history and science.

"We need to make sure other subject like history, science and the arts are not forgotten in our pursuit of the basic skills," said Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and former U.S. assistant education secretary.

Of the seven tested subjects on the national test, students performed the worst in U.S. history. Officials with the National Assessment Governing board, which oversees the tests, say the U.S. history results aren't comparable to the other tests because different students take each exam in different years.

The scores on the history test did not vary remarkably from years past. In 1994, for example, 19 percent of fourth-grade students scored proficient or better in U.S. history.

More than 7,000 fourth-grade students, 11,000 eighth-graders and 12,000 high school seniors from a nationally representative sample took the test last year.

Image: Orange County News
June 7, 2011 - California, U.S. - Students listen to a presentation during Civil War Living History Day at Spring View Middle School in Huntington Beach. (Credit Image: © Paul Bersebach/The Orange County Register/ Bersebach / The Orange County Register

Judy Brodigan, who was head of the elementary social studies curriculum for the Lewisville, Texas, school district for a decade, said history and social studies classes aren't as much of a priority for school districts as math and reading. She noted that many states only test history and social studies starting in middle school, which means elementary school students don't' get the background they need in the subject.

"When the foundation isn't built in elementary school, these students are coming to middle school lacking crucial skills," Brodigan said. "What is means is that in what is becoming a more and more global society, American students are more and more at a disadvantage."

Educators said history is critical to students learning how to become better citizens and understanding how the country's political and cultural systems work. Students need to not only recognize leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, but also understand why they were important to the development of the country.

"Overall the quality and success of our lives can only be enhanced by a study of our roots," said Steven Paine, former state schools superintendent for West Virginia. "If you don't know your past, you will not have a future."

Here are a few sample questions, answers are below.

4th grade quiz samples:

1. Match the event to the date:

A. Jamestown is founded.

B. The United States Constitution is written.

C. Christopher Columbus sails to the Americas.

D. Abraham Lincoln announces the Emancipation Proclamation

__ 1492; __ 1607; __ 1787; __ 1863

2. Aung San Suu Kyi lives in a country called Myanmar (Burma). She has spent many years trying to change her country’s government. She spoke the words below in 1996. “Those fortunate enough to live in societies where they are entitled to full political rights can reach out to help the less fortunate in other parts of our troubled planet. Young women and young men . . . might wish to cast their eyes beyond their own frontiers. . . . Please use your liberty to promote [help] ours.”

What document helps to give Americans what Aung San Suu Kyi wants her people to have?

A. The Mayflower Compact

B. The Gettysburg Address

C. The Star-Spangled Banner

D. The Bill of Rights

8th grade quiz samples

3. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, northern and southern delegates debated whether or not slaves would be counted as part of the state’s population. Disagreement over this question led to bitter tensions among delegates. To resolve the question referred to in the passage, delegates agreed to ...

A. include all male slaves in population totals.

B. include no slaves in population totals.

C. count each slave as three-fifths of a person in population totals.

D. count slaves in the southern states but not in the northern states.

4. (Under a picture, right, of an advertisement touting the invention of barbed wire)
The invention shown in the advertisement contributed to the

A. end of the era of the open-range cattle industry.

B. end of the expansion of railroads.

C. Northern victory in the Civil War.

D. growth of the West Coast population and California statehood

12th-grade questions

5. Why did Missouri’s application for statehood in 1819 cause a political crisis?

A. The United States had equal numbers of slave and free states, and Missouri’s entry would have upset the balance.

B. The United States had never before established a state west of the Mississippi, and Missouri’s entry would have likely caused conflict with American Indians.

C. Missouri was a center of abolitionist activity, and its admission would have antagonized southern states.

D. Missouri was a center of secessionist activity, and its entry would have antagonized northern states.

6. During the Korean War, United Nations forces made up largely of troops from the United States and South Korea fought against troops from North Korea and

A. the Soviet Union

B. Japan

C. China

D. Vietnam

Answer key

1. C. 1492; A. 1607; B. 1787; D. 1863

2. D.

3. C.

4. A.

5. A.

6. C.